early childhood

How one small Indiana city sees child care as a potential economic driver

PHOTO: Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare
A teacher reads to students at Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare in Ladoga, Indiana.

In the small city of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Mayor Todd Barton has traced the local workforce shortage back to a surprising problem: the lack of preschools, day cares, and after-school programs.

In his two terms as mayor, he has been pitching and promoting Crawfordsville, a blue-collar city of about 16,000 people that serves as the economic hub for a rural area some 50 miles west of Indianapolis. He has traveled to Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Japan to talk about jobs and try to lure investors. He’s looking to improve the city’s housing, transportation, dining options, and other quality-of-life aspects.

But as he hears from local employers that they can’t find workers to fill hundreds of jobs, particularly in skilled positions, Barton said he also hears from residents that they can’t find or afford somewhere for their children to go while parents are working.

The difficulty of finding child care poses a barrier to wooing new businesses and workers, retaining young professionals, and connecting unemployed adults with jobs.

“We know we have a challenge,” Barton said. “The question is, how much can we impact it?”

So expanding quality child-care options has become Barton’s latest economic development project. And he’s leveraging a popular argument for early childhood education: the workforce benefits.

In Indiana, the burgeoning conversation on early learning hasn’t necessarily been driven by the educational value alone. Thanks in part to a critical push from local businesses, it’s also been about how high-quality prekindergarten can create attractive climates for businesses that want to recruit, help families get back to work and school, and foster the next generation of workers.

“As we’re recruiting folks to come to Indianapolis, the expectation of those who we are recruiting is, ‘Hey, we want our kids in a strong learning environment,’” said Michael O’Connor, director of state government affairs at Eli Lilly and Co. Lilly is among the Indiana businesses that invested in Indianapolis’ pre-K program and also advocated for the state-funded pre-K program for low-income families, known as On My Way Pre-K.

Indiana is spending $22 million this year to provide pre-K to about 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families in 20 counties. But On My Way Pre-K is still in its early stages, and advocates have estimated 27,000 Hoosier children from low-income families, many in more rural areas like Crawfordsville, lack access to pre-K.

The economic angle will likely play a key role as advocates push to continue funding and potentially look to expand On My Way Pre-K in the 2019 legislative session, a budget-setting year.

The workforce argument for early childhood education is not new, nor is it unique to Indiana. But in this economic-minded Midwestern state, it’s been particularly persuasive in building public investment in pre-K, and raising the profile of early learning opportunities in general.

Showcasing the return on investment in pre-K, O’Connor said, was critical in garnering early support from lawmakers skeptical of the academic value for children and whether early gains would last.

“We had to get past this fundamental belief of, ‘you’re asking us to subsidize day care,’” O’Connor said. “And the way in which we wrestled that was this economic argument.”

In addition to tracking outcomes for children, state officials and researchers at Purdue University are also studying the effects of On My Way Pre-K on families. In the most recent update last October, the state found the program is reaching many children who had not previously been in child care. Slightly more than one-third of surveyed families said their children would not have attended preschool if they hadn’t qualified for On My Way Pre-K.

Parents are also required to be working or in school in order for their children to enroll in On My Way Pre-K. The survey reported that with access to pre-K, some parents were able to find new jobs or start school, increase their work or school hours, stay in a current job, search for a new job, or obtain better shifts at work.

With unemployment rates at a low point in Indiana — 3.2 percent in May, under the national unemployment rate of 3.5 percent — it’s becoming tougher, and more critical, to find new workers. That’s bringing additional interest from employers to pre-K, said Jeff Harris, director of public affairs for Early Learning Indiana, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education and runs preschool centers.

“People often say it’s a two-generational strategy, but it’s more,” Harris said, explaining that employers could see smaller benefits, too: fewer absences at work, less turnover of workers, more availability for night classes or other development opportunities.

In Crawfordsville, Barton said local employers are interested in the child-care issue, which they have been discussing at monthly economic development meetings. But many of the city’s largest employers have headquarters elsewhere, making it more difficult to address the issue on the ground.

Chalkbeat could not reach local contacts for comment at some of those businesses, including Penguin Random House, a book publishing company; LSC Communications, a printing company; and Pace Dairy, a dairy processing facility for Kroger.

For Barton, a Republican, his first challenge will be to determine the shortage of child care spaces and the demand for them. He said he plans to look to current providers to expand or improve in quality.

Like many of Indiana’s small and rural areas, Crawfordsville and surrounding Montgomery County simply lack child-care capacity for any ages, let alone high-quality options. Only about a dozen child-care providers in the county are registered with the state, with few on the state’s Paths to Quality rating scale and even fewer in the top quality tiers.

“It would be wonderful to have a lot of day care options and be able to review where you want to send your child based on the quality of the programming, but the reality is there just aren’t many day care options available, period,” said Brandy Allen, director of planning and community development in Crawfordsville. In supporting the economic development effort, she has also shared her personal experience of struggling to find child care.

School leaders say they’re willing to help, but are crunched for funding such efforts.

“We all have early childhood programs or preschools,” said Scott Bowling, superintendent of Crawfordsville schools. “But the limitation there, really – the funding is an issue. I hate that it always has to go back to that, but it always does.”

The state provides some funding for preschoolers with disabilities — but otherwise, districts often dip into their state funding for K-12 to support pre-K or afterschool programs. It’s yet to be seen whether lawmakers will choose to expand and increase funding for On My Way Pre-K, which is not available in Montgomery County.

“The investment that we do make in pre-K is worth it, that’s why we put in the effort. But it’s hard to go too far with that without hurting the K-12 side,” Bowling said.

Similarly, districts are tight on funding for improving the quality of their programs, said North Montgomery Schools Superintendent Colleen Moran.

On My Way Pre-K is an incentive to reach higher quality standards, since the state only allows the funding to go to providers at the top levels of its ranking system, called Paths to Quality.

“We haven’t gone a step further because we don’t have to, and there isn’t any more money to make facilities up to that high 3 or Level 4,” Moran said.

Quality poses perhaps a tougher obstacle than quantity. Supporters like Moran, Bowling, and Barton all want to build quality early childhood programs that go beyond training providers in basic health and safety to providing a planned curriculum that supports child development. Some early learning advocates even say that a low-quality program can be worse than no program at all.

But in a place like Crawfordsville, it’s a struggle to make quality part of the discussion.

In the southeast corner of Montgomery County, Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare in Ladoga has received several grants to expand and improve in quality. The preschool has moved up to a Level 3, the second-highest rank on Paths to Quality, and is now working toward accreditation in the hopes of rising to Level 4.

Preschool director Kim McVay said improving the quality was “the right thing to do” to better serve children and families. She said she sees an increase in professionalism from teachers, who have received more training.

But as much as she touts the quality of the program — it’s one of just two Level 3 providers in the county — McVay said that’s not usually a deciding factor for families.

“It all comes down, 90 percent of the time, to the bottom dollar,” she said. “If we’re charging more than somebody else — nope, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Her biggest battle, she said, is educating the community on why it’s important to have high-quality early learning.

“Paths to Quality is not understood as well as it would be in some place like Indianapolis where they have it everywhere,” McVay said. “It’s going to take time. You’re not going to change overnight the mindset that you’re starting out with.”

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Race for mayor

How to help Chicago’s younger learners? Mayoral frontrunners skip a chance to say.

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang

The challenge of mending and strengthening Chicago’s network of care and education for its youngest residents defies instant solutions, but four candidates for mayor agreed Monday on one point: The city needs to care for its child care centers rather than imposing more burdens on them.

And the city should include those crucial small businesses, which often anchor neighborhoods, in its growing pre-kindergarten system.

Related: Why Rahm Emanuel’s rollout of universal pre-K has preschool providers worried

At a forum Monday at the University of Chicago on the topic of early childhood education, candidates addressed how city government can stitch together a stronger early learning system. Chicago’s mayoral election is Feb. 26.

Chicago is in the first year of a four-year universal pre-kindergarten rollout, and the city’s next mayor will determine much of the fate of the program. About 21,000 children have enrolled out of an estimated 45,000. And cost estimates are now north of $220 million, much of it federal and state money earmarked for early childhood expenditures. But the mayor can direct how that money is spent.

The forum attracted four candidates: former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, state representative and former teacher La Shawn K. Ford, and John Kozlar, a University of Chicago graduate who, at 30, is the youngest candidate in the race.

Four candidates considered front-runners — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley and Gery Chico — didn’t attend. Nor did six more of the 14 candidates.

All of the mayoral candidates who answered said they would continue to support Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion but did not specify how.

The event was organized by Child Care Advocates United, a statewide alliance of child care providers who banded together four years ago when the state budget crisis was forcing many providers and child care agencies to cut back or close.

The central topic of conversation was how city government can build a stronger early learning system. Several questions revolved around issues faced by for-profit and nonprofit day care owners and preschool operators who are facing teacher shortages, budget pressures, and a churn of students. Some advocates say Chicago’s rollout of universal pre-K has made a operating a difficult business even more tenuous, as they lose children and revenue to Chicago Public Schools.

A Chalkbeat analysis of data published last week showed that public school preschool programs are at 91 percent capacity, while one in five seats at community-run preschools and centers is empty.

The candidates Monday offered different suggestions for alleviating the pressure.

Related: Care about schools? Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s voter guide to the mayor’s race. 

“We have to end this fight between Chicago Public Schools and (community) providers. It is killing an industry,” said Ford, a state legislator who described the budget pressures many providers faced under former governor Bruce Rauner, when Illinois did not pass a budget for more than two years.

A September report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which tracks openings and closures among licensed daycare facilities, shows a loss of 3,400 licensed facilities statewide from 2010 to 2018.

“Chicago Public Schools cannot do (preschool) cheaper, and it cannot do it better,” said Vallas, also a former budget director for the city of Chicago, who has put out a detailed prenatal-to-preschool platform that starts with universal prenatal care and a detailed menu of services and supports for children birth to age 5.

“The challenge with the universal pre-K program that Rahm Emanuel and (schools chief) Janice Jackson rolled out is that there was no engagement with community-based providers,” said Lightfoot, who questioned the timing of the May 2018 announcement just weeks before a Chicago Tribune series cast a spotlight on a pattern of mishandling student sexual abuse cases in the K-12 system. “This program was ill-conceived and rolled out in spring to be a distraction to the sex assault investigation about to be unveiled by the Tribune.”

At the forum, held in the auditorium of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, Vallas also spoke about creating incentives to entice more prospective teachers into the field, including grow-your-own programs that target parents.

He also described a system of startup grants and opportunity zones that would make it easier for new businesses to take root and tax breaks for providers who serve a variety of children well.

Ford advocated pressuring state legislators to increase reimbursement rates to providers, which could be used to increase teacher pay, and setting aside tax-increment financing, or TIF, dollars for early childhood businesses. And Lightfoot talked about converting some of the schools that Chicago has closed into job training and early childhood centers.

“The policy that has been rolled out is not equitable and not sustainable,” she said of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout. “We need to work in partnership with our communities.”

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